When Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) swung into the final corner atop the climb of Jebel Hafeet with only Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) for company, there really was no doubt as to who would win the final stage of the Abu Dhabi Tour.
Valverde, it seems, has forgotten how to lose.
With red jersey Rohan Dennis (BMC Racing Team) still labouring further down the mountain, the Spaniard already had the general classification effectively sewn up, but the winner's time bonus would offer more breathing space, and, besides, he has never been much given to dispensing gifts. As if by reflex, Valverde lifted himself from the saddle and claimed the spoils.
Already a winner of two stages and the overall at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, Valverde's tally for 2018 now stands at five victories. It's a startling haul for late February and a feat made all the more remarkable by the fact that the 37-year-old had been out of action since breaking his kneecap and talus in a crash in the rain-soaked opening time trial of last year's Tour de France.
Valverde has previous when it comes to hitting the ground running in the wake of an enforced lay-off. He was out of the peloton for a year and a half after he was belatedly sanctioned for blood doping in 2010, only to return without missing a step in January 2012.
"It's different," Valverde said afterwards when asked if it had been more difficult to come back from a doping ban or a broken leg. "2012 was beautiful when I came back and won at the Tour Down Under, but these wins are even nicer. 2012 was a long time ago, I'm thinking about now and the future. I'm happy now."
In some respects, Valverde is to professional cycling what Tom Brady is to the NFL. The older he gets, the younger he seems. The more miles on the clock, the more eye-catching the numbers. Past controversy means that he will always be a divisive figure, each victory greeted with as much derision as jubilation. And still the beat goes on, apparently with no end in sight.
"As long as I continue winning, I will continue riding," Valverde said. "I don't know if I'm the best rider in the world, but I'm a rider who wins big races and is always up there."
The Abu Dhabi Tour may not have the prestige of the loftiest prizes on Valverde's palmarès but with WorldTour points on offer, the Spaniard and his Movistar team paid it the due deference of a big race. Valverde arrived in Abu Dhabi earlier than any of his rivals, a full four days before the event, and he used the time to scale Jebel Hafeet on no fewer than five occasions.
"I got here on the Friday, so I went up this climb on Saturday, Sunday and Monday," he explained. "I did it once on Saturday, twice on Sunday and twice on Monday. I knew this climb perfectly, but as well as that, coming here early meant that I got acclimatised to the conditions and the time difference. It's only a three-hour difference from Europe but I preferred to take the time to adapt. I think it was the right idea because I knew what was coming and I knew exactly where to attack."
Valverde began his onslaught six kilometres from the summit and then responded smartly when Lopez launched a stinging attack of his own shortly afterwards. Their forcing stretched the leading group to breaking point, with Dennis distanced, and men like Fabio Aru (UAE-Team Emirates) and Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) were struggling to stay on terms.
Lopez eventually managed to jump away from the dwindling front group, but Valverde was merely biding his time on an already familiar road. With three kilometres remaining, he zoomed across the gap to Lopez, and the pair combined to put definitive distance between themselves and the rest. They reached the finish 15 seconds clear of Julian Alaphilippe and the first group of chasers, which sufficed for Valverde to claim overall victory by 17 seconds from Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb).
"I'm on form," Valverde said with considerable understatement. "In Mallorca the sensations were good, Valencia confirmed that I was well, and here I've confirmed that I'm very well."
Valverde is on the provisional start list for next Saturday's Strade Bianche, but his participation is by no means assured. Much might depend on the grim weather forecast for Tuscany next weekend.
"I haven't decided yet if I'll go to Strade Bianche or hold off until the Volta a Catalunya," Valverde said. "We'll evaluate it during the week and see how my body responds to the time change and the change in temperature."
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